Sermon for the Eighteen Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A few years ago, Christian author Anne Lamott published a book called, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I think the title alone is indeed a nice summary of Christian prayer. We do indeed turn to God for help. We give God our thanks. As we ponder the mysteries and majesty of God, sometimes all we can say is, “wow!”
I also think these three words provide a nice summary of our gospel reading for today.
Help! That’s what the lepers needed! Leprosy was a devastating diagnosis in the ancient world. Not only were the physical effects of weakened and withering appendages a horrible thing to go through, but people experienced all of this utterly cut off from others. There are sections of the book of Leviticus which serve as strict public health regulations for people who contracted leprosy: they were to leave their spouses, their families, their town, their community, and live all by themselves. They were strictly forbidden from coming closer than 50 feet from another human being. The situation was so dire, with such little hope for restoration to the community, that some families would actually hold funerals for their loved ones with leprosy even while they were still alive! People with leprosy were perpetually, and in most cases permanently, unclean. They were thus banned from worship with the community, which meant they were effectively cut off from God.
Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. It was literally neither here nor there. It was one of those in-between places where lepers were made to live as they were pushed to the margins of society. Keeping the distance required by the law they called out to Jesus from afar, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” In other words, “Help!”
When Jesus saw them, he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. They knew what this meant! In those rare cases when people did recover from leprosy (or were perhaps misdiagnosed in the first place and found their skin had cleared up) there was a process by which they could be restored to the community. And the first stop in this process was to go to the priests. The lepers knew this! And so off they went – and as they went, they were made clean. They were physically healed. One of the ten turned back to Jesus. He laid down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Thank you.”
Next comes the “wow.” The “wow” comes when we pay close attention to a couple of very important details. First of all, the one leper who turned to Jesus and gave thanks was a Samaritan. Samaritans were seen by Jewish people as the worst kind of traitors. They had intermarried with their enemies, and over time had adopted aspects of their religion. Because of these deep betrayals of the God of their ancestors, they were seen as beyond the scope of God’s care or attention, worthy of nothing but his wrath. But here is one of these outsiders, these foreigners, being healed. And of the ten lepers who were healed, it was the despised Samaritan who turned back to give thanks and praise to God. Wow! Jesus himself notes how unusual this is! Wow!
But there’s another wow! Because you see, Jesus says something very specific to describe what has happened to this Samaritan. St. Luke, as he narrates the story, tells us that all ten were made clean. He tells us that they were physically healed. But when Jesus addresses this Samaritan, he says that because of his faith, something even deeper has happened. The Bible translation we hear this morning simply says, “Your faith has made you well,” but there’s a lot more going on here than the fact that his skin has cleared up! This man has been “made whole,” which is how the King James translates this verse. He has been “healed and saved,” which is how Eugene Peterson translates it in “The Message.” The root word translated here as being “made well” is the root word for salvation! Because of his faith in Jesus Christ this man was not only restored to good health, he was not only restored to human community, this leprous Samaritan was also restored to right relationship with God. He received salvation in the deepest sense of the word! Wow!
Help, thanks, wow. These three words really summarize the story, don’t they? And they don’t just do that. They also summarize our pattern of life as Christians here today.
We start almost every worship service as Christians with the Kyrie. There’s a reason for that. Every time we sing the words kyrie eleison, we are singing the exact same words the lepers cried out when they came into the presence of Jesus. Kyrie eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy.” We sing “Lord, have mercy on us,” because we need help! We need help just like the lepers did! There are times in all of our lives when we need help from God. There are times in all of our lives when we know that same sense of isolation, or that same sense of hopelessness, or that same sense of desperation that the lepers experienced. The illness of leprosy might be blessedly rare in our day, but the illness of sin affects us all. And so we know what it is like to feel alienated from others and alienated from God. Many Christian traditions like to begin every service with twenty minutes of praise. I am glad to be in a branch of Christianity that still recognizes that much of the time the first thing we need to say to God is “help!”
And of course, our cries of help always give way to saying thank you, because God is faithful. God is good. Sometimes we say thanks to God for cures. Physical healing sometimes happens – sometimes in ways we can’t explain! But it should also be said that God doesn’t always give us exactly what we want. Sometimes people aren’t cured. Sometimes healing comes in a different way. I think of my friend, Pastor Deb Benson over at Anacortes Lutheran, since her cancer diagnosis. There isn’t much hope for a cure for her at this point. You never know what God has in store, but most of the medical measures being taken at this point don’t suggest a cure is coming for her. Pastor Deb has been very open about her experiences these past few weeks, sharing them regularly on her Caring Bridge website, and what has come through for me in her writings there lately more than anything else is her incredible gratitude. Even in the midst of her sickness, she is exuberantly thankful – thankful for every moment, thankful for the life she has led, thankful for her family, thankful for the support of her congregation and her friends, thankful for the work of the doctors and nurses who are caring for her. Deb is honest about the times she is sad or scared too, but she is also so very thankful to God for the many ways he has been so good to her. Sometimes healing happens even when there is no cure! And so she reminds me of another part of the liturgy, the Preface before communion, when we say: “It is indeed right, our duty, and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our savior Jesus Christ.”
And then there is the “wow.” You see, Jesus didn’t come into the world just to heal a few people physically and then go back to heaven. He didn’t come to open a traveling dermatology practice, temporarily curing nasty skin diseases so a handful of people could die of old age instead of leprosy.
Jesus came to conquer death completely. He came to conquer sin completely. He came to conquer everything that separates us from God, so that we could live in right relationship with him, now and forever.
The healing of the leprous Samaritan shows us that no one is beyond the care and concern of our gracious heavenly Father. It is a sign of Jesus’ greater purpose to bring life and wholeness and restoration to all people. It is a sign the greater healing he came to bring. It is a sign of the salvation he came to bring us through the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life.
Jesus has done all of this for you. Your faith in him makes you well.
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 6, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
About a year ago, an African American man named Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his apartment when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly below his, entered his apartment by mistake, mistook him for a burglar, and shot him dead.
This past week, Amber Guyger was convicted of murder with special circumstances and sentenced to ten years in prison. Botham Jean’s brother, 18-year old Brandt, was present at the victim’s impact panel. I’d like to show you what happened when he was given an opportunity to speak:
A video clip from ABC news is played showing Brandt Jean telling Amber Guyger that he forgives her, loves her, and wants what is best for her. He invites her to give her life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. He then asks the judge if he can give her a hug. The judge allows it, and they engage in a long, tearful embrace in the courtroom. The video can be viewed at the following web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkoE_GQsbNA
I think this is a nothing short of a miracle. In the horror of losing a beloved brother in such a tragic way, and with all the racial tensions simmering just below the surface, this young man did something that seems to many people to be impossible. He forgave.
When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, their request for more faith didn’t come out of the blue. It wasn’t random. They asked Jesus to increase their faith because he has just asked them to do something that seemed to them to be impossible. Right before they asked Jesus to increase their faith Jesus had said to them: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
No wonder the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith! He was asking them to do something that seemed impossible. You want us to forgive? Even if the same person sins against us seven times in the same day?
It is important to note that the offender is to be rebuked. Repentance is expected of the person. It isn’t as though there are zero consequences. Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples to be doormats!
But even so, he is calling them to something that seems impossible. He is calling them to be people of complete and perfect forgiveness. When he calls them to forgive seven times, he isn’t calling them to keep track. He isn’t telling them to keep a list, and that people get seven strikes and then they’re out. Seven is the number of completion. It is the number of perfection. Jesus is calling them to forgive completely and perfectly. Again, no wonder the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!” This kind of forgiveness seemed to them to be impossible!
But Jesus says it is not impossible. Not with faith. And you don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” This is an obviously absurd image meant to illustrate that faith can do things that seem impossible. Not that faith is magic! You can have all the faith in the world and you won’t literally be able to plant a tree in the ocean, right? But even a little faith can accomplish the seemingly impossible things our Lord Jesus calls us to do.
That’s because faith is not trusting in ourselves. It is not trusting in our own power or strength or abilities. Christian faith means putting our trust in Jesus. It is not so much a matter of how much faith we have, but where we put it! When we put our trust in Jesus, when we look to him as our Lord and master, when we realize how indebted we are to him for our salvation, well, we just naturally start to serve him – to do the things he has called us to do.
That’s what the next little parable is about. This can be a troubling story to our modern ears with its casual references to slavery. But we should bear in mind that the slavery referred to in this story is not the violent, race-based slavery which is a dark part of our nation’s history. The slavery of the ancient world was more of an indentured servitude. These slaves were most often bondservants who were indebted to their masters, who had provided them with material support in one form or another. A bondservant served his master not in order to receive a round of applause or a certificate of appreciation or in order to earn favor with the master. Bondservants served their masters because they were indebted to them! They served their masters because that’s what they were supposed to do!
The point of this little story, then, is really quite simple. Jesus is telling his disciples to serve him, to do the things he is calling them to do, simply because they are his people. They belong to him. They are indebted to him. They shouldn’t expect certificates of appreciation! They shouldn’t expect special treatment for doing what they have been called to do! They are to forgive others because that is what he himself has done for them. They are to forgive others because that is what his people do.
So who is it that you need to forgive today? Maybe it is a family member. Maybe it is someone who has hurt you or has hurt someone you love. Maybe it is someone you work with, or a neighbor, or a former friend. Maybe it is someone you should have been able to trust.
Remember that forgiveness does not mean ignoring the wrong that has been done. Jesus himself says there is a place for rebuking and for repentance. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. But it does mean letting go of the anger. It does mean seeking reconciliation whenever possible. What grudge have you been nursing that you need to let go of in order to pursue reconciliation?
Maybe it is someone here in this congregation. There is a beautiful moment built right into our worship service for this. It is called the passing of the peace. Much of the time we treat this as a casual time to say good morning, and a lot of the time that’s all it is. But its intent is for reconciliation. Its intent is for the people of God to be reconciled to one another before they go to the altar to be reconciled to God in Holy Communion. The passing of the peace is intended to be a time for the kind of embracing we saw in that courtroom.
Forgiveness means bearing with each other, looking past those flaws in others that annoy us on a daily basis. It means forgiving people over and over again, loving them in spite of their flaws. For instance, I have been loading the dishwasher incorrectly for twenty-three years, and somehow my wife still loves me!
Forgiveness can also mean something much more difficult. It can mean telling the person who shot and killed your brother while he was eating ice cream in his own apartment that you love her and you forgive her and you want what is best for her. It can mean lovingly inviting someone who has taken something precious from you to give their life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. It can mean going to someone you have every right to hate, and instead of giving them hate, giving them a hug.
This kind of complete and perfect forgiveness seems impossible. It seems about as likely as telling a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea and having it obey you!
But with faith in Jesus Christ, it is not impossible. You don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! Even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough for the Lord Jesus to work with. It gets his foot in the door so he can get a hold of our hearts and do his work in us. This complete and perfect forgiveness is hard. Sometimes it is an ongoing process. But it is not impossible.
We forgive because we have been forgiven. We embrace others with grace because in spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has told us he loves us and forgives us. In spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has thrown his arms around us in his love and mercy.
We forgive because Christ is in us through faith, moving our hearts to extend to others the forgiveness we ourselves have received.
We forgive because we belong to him, and that’s just what his people do.
This 12-week study will explore why Martin Luther called Pauls’ letter to the church in Rome “the purest gospel.” You have two options to participate: Sunday mornings at 9:15 beginning September 8 or Tuesday nights at 7pm beginning September 10. We meet in the church library. All are welcome!
Get your red on as we celebrate Reformation Sunday at OHLC! Not only are you encouraged to wear red – you are also invited to bring your favorite dessert with red in it to share at fellowship time. What will it be? Red Velvet Cake? Cherry pie? Rhubarb crisp? Raspberry sherbet? A life-size bust of Martin Luther made out of red jello?
Red is the color for Reformation because it is the color of the Holy Spirit, and we believe the Spirit was at work through the work of the reformers to bring the gospel back to the center of the church’s life and proclamation. Join us for a red, Spirit-filled Sunday of worship and fellowship on October 27!